Caroline Caddy’s ninth collection of poetry, Burning Bright, brings together acutely observant poems that often centre on an experience; each experience holds the speaker’s intense attention and is turned this way and that until all its angles are illuminated. The poems focus on image and, in something of an homage to this focus, a number are set in China, perhaps a thematic echo of the fact that the development of such poetry in the English language owes much to early-twentieth-century translations of Classical Chinese poems. Yet the tone is conversational, making even more potent the poems’ sometimes arresting imagery.
A central theme of the collection is the intersection of culture and environment, as well as the way human beings are shaped by the places we inhabit. Typographically, the poems have great breadth, travelling almost as much across the page as down it, aware of a sense of space and of the kind of far-reaching horizons of the Australian landscape that many of the poems depict. The speaker is often an outsider in these (sub)cultures and places, at least initially; the first ten poems depict Western Australia’s rural south-west and the next thirteen are set in China. Following this, the speaker moves from the city to a country olive farm, and most of the remaining poems turn then to a depiction of life in that place – the settling in, the adjustments, the hazards, the neighbours – often with a focus on connections among people.
In the poems set in the South-West, expansiveness and distance are emphasised to evoke a strong sense of place. The motif of the car is often present, and takes the reader through country ‘where life is thinly spread’. In ‘The Commercial Hotel’, the settlements are ‘Small towns with emptiness / at the ends of their wide gravel streets’; fields are ‘endless’; the landscape is ‘vast’ and presses in on the manmade dwellings: with the coming of the night, ‘the pale stubble fields began to push / lightly against the windows’. In this there is sometimes a sense of the uncanny, which is both heightened and curbed in ‘Wheat Bins’; on the one hand, that there are townships in the immense landscape is depicted as an almost fantastical fact – ‘Such a big feeling to arrive in such a small place / realising not so much we’re here / but that it’s here’ – and on the other, ‘But there’s nothing strange out here no lights / nothing that has landed or will take off / no need for any “other”’.
The China poems also focus on the environment, one which is often, but not always, built. Such poems as ‘Butter’ and ‘Confucian Temple An Shun’ are impressionistic and, along with many of the other China poems, evoke the sense of bewilderment, wonder and discovery that is tied to being in the thick of a place that is home to people of another culture. They also underscore the possibilities for writing when the world being observed is so different and its people’s languages are not understood. In ‘None the Wiser’ the mundane becomes charged with meaning because the speaker can’t understand it: a nightly megaphone announcement is an intriguing enigma because it is unintelligible and thus its purpose is obscure. Its hypnotic repetition is such that the speaker can ‘say along in total synchronicity / the sound of a dialect / in total ignorance’.
Interestingly, the outsider perspective, while explored in the China poems, is perhaps most highlighted in ‘Great Southern’ when the speaker’s vocation is the focus for what might most set her apart, or might make her feel at least a certain otherness. Here there is a delightful mutual gaze of difference, one of poet and farmer contemplating each other, the process of which is perhaps unexpected: ‘They are the ones who when I say what I do don’t flinch / but turn the idea over / like an oil sheened tool’. The speaker’s expectation seems to be that Australians do flinch, and yet in this place, far from the urban centres where making a living means performing the most pragmatic of tasks, her vocation is assessed carefully and accepted (‘I feel I’ve been given a kind of permission’) because it’s country where ‘words must work’. The fact that the speaker’s automatic disposition towards what she does is almost apologetic, or is at least prepared for – what? incredulity? disapproval? – says something about Australian poets’ sense of marginalisation in their home country while poets elsewhere occupy a more central, visible role.
These places where environment and culture intersect are often sites for contemplation and discovery. In ‘Great Southern’, the poet draws attention to the (necessary) resourcefulness of the country people, while making use of a rhythm that, together with the mostly monosyllabic vocabulary, reflects the offhanded pragmatism of their outlook: ‘I’ve met blokes out here / who will attempt anything and it’s nothing / fix a gate with a piece of wire kill a beast for the table / build a boat’. Some men’s interaction with others – both their presence and their manner of communicating – is shaped by the land: ‘They are the ones who turn to speak in a roadhouse / and bring those paddocks / right up to the counter’; their rural culture is described succinctly in ‘Neighbours’ with the observation that they inhabit ‘the land of self-reliance’.
This way that place affects people is also depicted in ‘Confucian Temple An Shun’. The artistry of the craftsman and patron responsible for the titular temple is emphasised, as is the way that the place they have created affects its visitors:
and if we knew nothing of the great sage
and if our hands on the braille balustrades
couldn’t tell the difference
between alabaster and cement
there would still be a transmission a civilising
not of palaces or tombs
but the adequate and charming bones of dwelling
the few good actions the few good words
what you say to me what I say to you.
The second half of this extract highlights another of the speaker’s concerns: the way that words also build, also fashion an environment in which to subsist, and how they, like place, shape us, just as the speaker’s words are at this moment guiding and moulding the reader’s focus and perception.
The idealism of the poet moving to the country is tempered by recognition of the sometimes difficult reality of living there, which creates an interesting tension and counterpoint, as well as a sense of variety throughout the collection. There is the enthusiasm and impatience of ‘Planting Olive Trees’ – ‘hurry hurry / I want to see the flames / of the little trees’ – but there is also the moving, acutely observed ‘Tambellup’, a poem that, through finely tuned images, both narrates a story and says something about humanity (or, at least, about humanity of the sedentary kind). This poem’s protagonists, general-store owners in ‘their flat land of persevere and make-do’, have ‘this urge that sets itself up in our brain / let’s play house we say as kids / and it stays with us’. Despite ‘the tastefully tumbledown verandah’ and the owners’ ‘good sense of colour and design’, outside circumstances – the 7/11, for example – have made theirs an unprofitable venture, one that has caused ‘the light gone out of their eyes’. Yet, emphasising how compelling and deep-seated this drive, the speaker ends with:
I think of them
but still lie wide eyed in the dark
my hands reaching out instinctively
to stack and restack shelves
move the cash point
keep the candy close.
On a technical level, Caddy has a knack for transmitting her observations through distinctive images, often metaphors, to create atmosphere and meaning – take this in ‘Shanghai Renga’: ‘my awareness of the leaves tingling in me like sap’. Often these metaphors deftly create a sense of dehabitualisation, as is the case in ‘Neighbours’: ‘if an oily rag could give light without burning / that’s the time of evening’. Likewise, Caddy’s opting to substitute commas with greater-than-usual spaces is a fitting way of representing visually – and, indeed, of forcing the reader to enact – the kind of pauses and breaths that her poetry requires. In poems that privilege the horizontal, it’s an appropriate understatement, a kind of stripping away of distractions.
Another oft-used device is repetition, which is employed on the word- and phrase-level to create a kind of lulling rhythm but sometimes feels a little overstated. In ‘Away’, for example, the repetition of ‘the quiet and the dark’ among interspersing lines of new material creates an effective dynamic, until the final three lines, which I feel are wielded a little heavy-handedly. Likewise, ‘About the Songs’ is a moving, layered poem, but I don’t think its mention of the songs, along with their pre-eminence in the title, warrants their (this time, thematic) repetition in the closing lines, which seems to be a lack of trust in the reader’s capacity to intuit the poet’s regret at not telling her neighbour about them.
But these few quibbles are finicky when considering the collection as a whole. Caddy writes with such grace and precision, and reading her new collection, I felt like I’d been offered – quietly, discreetly – a kind of gift.